Cheering as their soccer team notched up goal after goal against Madagascar on Sunday, Ivory Coast fans celebrated not only sporting victory but also a blossoming of peace in their once war-divided nation.
The Africa Nations Cup qualifier, which the Ivorian Elephants won 5-0, was played in the central city of Bouake, which has been a rebel stronghold since a 2002-2003 civil war split the West African country into two halves.
The venue, unthinkable a few months ago, was requested by Chelsea striker and national hero Didier Drogba to cement the remarkable progress made toward re-uniting the nation since a peace pact was signed by the government and rebels in March.
"The objective is reconciliation. We had to put on a show and we succeeded. Ivory Coast is reunited through football," Drogba told reporters after running a victory lap to greet fans in the near-full 26,000-capacity stadium after the game.
The home-grown March 4 peace pact, which followed a string of foreign-backed agreements that ended in deadlock, foresees a process of reunification and disarmament to be crowned by elections early next year in the world's top cocoa producer.
President Laurent Gbagbo named rebel leader Guillaume Soro prime minister after the deal and the factions' mutual enmity has quickly dissipated, enabling United Nations peacekeepers to start removing a buffer zone across the country.
Bouake still bears the scars of war, with some buildings empty and a few half demolished by a 2004 air raid by government forces.
Before Sunday's match, rebels swept the streets and hoteliers spruced up their premises, welcoming some Ivorians from the south for the first time since the war.
"Besides sport, the Elephants in Bouake is about reconciliation. After this, Ivorians who were scared to come here will have nothing more to worry about," said rebel combatant Seydou Fofana.
UN and French peacekeepers had watered the parched pitch with a truck tanker, enabling grass to cover holes in time for the match, which a week ago soccer authorities were saying might have to be moved to the government-controlled south.
"It's been a real pleasure to witness this, especially when I saw government and rebel soldiers dancing in the stands.
"I hope this kind of thing happens again," said fan Vali Coulibaly, painted in the national colours orange, white and green.
The Elephants' successes last year, which included reaching the final of the Africa Nations Cup in Egypt and the World Cup finals in Germany, turned them into a vibrant symbol of national reconciliation for Ivorians both north and south.
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